Georgia was the first country in the South Caucasus with a confirmed COVID-19 case. Initially, the authorities managed to contain the pandemic, with the lowest number of COVID-19 deaths in the region.
To explain this performance, the media refers to Georgia’s “three musketeers” – three scientists in charge of managing the outbreak, one of them acting as head of the Lugar laboratory. Since 2017, the Lugar laboratory – named after U.S. senator Richard Lugar – has been the main target of a Russian disinformation campaign claiming that the laboratory is used by the US to produce biological weapons. As a result, 20% of Georgians believe that the lab contributed to the spread of the virus.
Examples of wide spread disinformation narratives targeting anti-Western propaganda include the claim that the Lugar laboratory is where COVID-19 was manufactured or the portrayal of the EU and NATO as unable to manage the outbreak.
In addition, religious figures added to the disinformation campaigns, concerning topics such as vaccines, Bill Gates, and 5G technology. According to the Caucasus barometer, around 70% of Georgians trust the church. Based on these findings, we could infer that messages disseminated by priests or other religious authorities could have a significant impact.
Kremlin propaganda was also wide spread in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, aimed at fuelling anti-Georgian feelings. According to this propaganda, Georgians were spreading COVID-19 in these regions on purpose.
In addition to disinformation, according to BBC, there were also cases of xenophobia involving Azerbaijani ethnics in Georgia, as one of the first and most significant outbreak took place in a neighborhood inhabited by Azerbaijani ethnics.
Media & Legislation
Georgia ranks 60 in the World Press Freedom Index and is described as pluralistic, but not yet independent, while the Caucasus Barometer revealed that there is neither trust nor distrust in the media. In the long run, trust in the media is expected to decrease, due to Russian propaganda and disinformation.
In terms of the legislation, the Law on Broadcasting was adopted in 2004. It stipulates a liberal approach, promoting freedom of speech and expression, establishing public broadcasting free from government interference. However, it is considered more difficult to fight disinformation and propaganda in this format.
Target Groups & Exposure
There is relatively fertile ground for the Russian propaganda machine to attempt to subtly influence the public opinion on anti-Western matters. It usually operates by creating artificial threats or exaggerating existing fears. An example of a featured message is that membership to the European Union and NATO would lead to loss of national identity. This narrative integrates the sensitive subject of autocephaly of the Georgian Church – an important value in Georgian society. Consequently, propaganda claims that Western values are not compatible with local church traditions and that any kind of Western membership would mean the loss of sovereignty for the Church. This is meant to portray Russia as sole defender of the Orthodox Christian Church.
The Russian-speaking population is particularly vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation. This category includes the elderly, who are Russian-speakers and who experience nostalgia over the Soviet past. For this purpose, there are attempts to distort historical facts and to portray the Soviet past and dictators as proponents of efficient management. Russian is also widely spoken in Georgia by ethnic minorities such as Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
Another issue is Russia’s constant support for the quasi-statehood of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, through which pro-Kremlin disinformation and pro-separatist messages can penetrate the rest of the country.
Last but not the least, the Georgian political landscape is enabling Russia’s soft power in the country. The governing party – the Georgian Dream – has been gradually restoring ties with Russia since it came to power. There are also other openly pro-Russian parties, such as the Alliance of Patriots and the Democratic Movement – United Georgia.
Despite these circumstances that facilitate Russia’s influence over the information space, there are also strong media and civic initiatives aimed at countering disinformation and Russian propaganda, such as the platform Mythdetector.ge of the Media Development Foundation. Moreover, there is still a widely negative perception of Russia in the Georgian society, as 85% consider Russia a political threat. In addition, 45% of Georgians believe that Russian TV stations are spreading disinformation.